Can Exo protect you from the ‘yuck’ factor’?

Making sales in any business can be hard enough, but converting repulsion into sales is even harder. Armed with cricket flour protein bars in hand, Exo has taken on this challenge.

Source: Exo

Founded in a Brown University dorm room by Gabi Lewis and Greg Sewitz in 2013, Exo is trying to convince people that ‘crickets are the new kale.’ Their protein bars are not only healthy and super nutritious, but the cricket flour adds a sustainable punch of protein. Despite these key selling points, Exo is still fighting an uphill battle to convince consumers to start eating insects.

A bit like the uphill battle I seem to face constantly in the chemistry lab, trying to get the reaction I want and avoid all the other possibilities. Take this molecule.

3-Chloro-1-propanol. Source: created on ChemSpider


Swapping out the chloride for something else seems pretty simple right? Wrong. Instead of an easy swap, the much more reactive -OH (alcohol) reacts, and you end up with a bunch of products you don’t want.

Protecting groups

Luckily, chemists have outsmarted the alcohols, devising a sneaky method to get the outcome they want. They use protecting groups. These are unique molecules that bind to the most reactive group (like the alcohol) stopping it from reacting. This forces the other group (like the chloride) to react instead, giving a chemoselective reaction.

These protecting groups have a lot in common with Exo’s nifty approach to marketing and branding. By carefully presenting themselves and their product, Exo manages to protect their audience from their first super reactive “ugh – I hate insects” response. This leaves open the less reactive option, “yum – insects are fantastic!” and with it, the potential for sales.

More reactive

Despite cricket flour being their main selling point, Exo manages to keep their product separate from the ‘creepy-crawly’ nature of crickets. Although, “Made from Cricket Flour” is written front and centre on the bars, there are no cricket images to be found. Not an insect to be seen on their instagram.  Instead, they give off a healthy, scientific vibe. Their packaging has an almost lab manual look. They use statistics and infographics to convince people of the advantages of eating crickets.

Exo protein bars. Source: Exo


Now, if your molecule was to have a more reactive bromide instead of a chloride, getting the ideal reaction would be that bit faster and easier.  Likewise, Exo started strategically, pitching and testing their product amongst regulars at the local CrossFit gym. These early adopters were keen to build muscle and boost their protein, and so were more reactive to the scientific benefits than the gross factor of insects.


Unfortunately, if a protecting group only gets your product a measly 2% of the time, it’s not really good enough. The closer to 100% the better. In the laboratory the yield is often not immediately obvious, instead a series of tests are needed to find the purity.

In the business world this yield of success can easily be measured with key metrics like sales and profits. If Exo’s marketing strategies and branding had been unsuccessful, they would have had only a handful of customers. They would have been an unsustainable business. But luckily, their protecting group approach has given a high yield. In their first production run they sold out of all 50,000 bars within weeks. With growing demand, they’ve expanded their channels to include online sales, subscriptions and stockists in wholefood stores.



Reaction conditions

A good protecting group should be effective in  a variety of reaction conditions, so for Exo this meant that hard core gym bunnies alone, are not enough.

But by pitching from a variety of angles, from sustainability, to protein, to vitamin content, they have managed to appeal to a broader market. This was evident in their first Kickstarter campaign in 2013.  Shooting past their initial goal, they raised a huge $54,911 USD. Since then, they have gone on to raise a total of $5.6 million USD. With only a few early adopters this would not have been possible.


Temperature can cause havoc on reactions and the resulting products, especially if the protecting group is unstable. But Exo have taken advantage of the heat of the media. With such a controversial product, media scrutiny has the potential to do more harm than good. But Exo have made this heat work for them, with coverage in publications like Forbes, TIME, and National Geographic being used to open a dialogue on entomophagy and ignite interest in their product.


Protecting groups also have to be resilient, because acid has the potential to strip back a molecule, leaving it unrecognisable and prone to an unwanted reaction.

Exo also had to ensure that despite their marketing, their product had a solid scientific backing and could withstand attack. Luckily, their insect eating approach has been supported by a 200 page UN report,  making it all the more difficult for them to be undermined by factual discrepancies.

In a chemical reaction, the protective group can eventually be removed, leaving the ideal product. Although, Exo still have a clever marketing cloak that carefully masks the crickets, they have managed to reach the reaction outcome they want. And by bugging people about the benefits of insects, they have given the insect market the potential to take off with unprecedented potential.







How to crystallise start-up success

Dipping my toe into the world of entrepreneurship, I’ve realised that it’s actually quite hard.  In fact start-ups fail all the time (90% if we are being precise).

You know what else fails all the time? Crystallisation.  Having spent my fair share of time in university chemistry labs, I’m well acquainted with this mysterious process. It involves making a liquid solution which should *theoretically* then start growing pretty little crystals like in this video.


Unfortunately this is what actually happens most of the time…

Crystallisation saga

A low success rate to say the least.

Yesterday, it became clear in my Advanced Physical Chemistry lecture that crystallisation is not in fact chemistry sorcery, but a precise balancing act.  A lot like start-ups.  Some grow into big successes (big crystals), while others never make it (no crystallisation).

One start-up that seems to have crystallised success is Education Perfect.

They are a New Zealand company who offer educational software to schools globally. They originated from co-founder Craig Smith’s need to learn Japanese and German vocabulary for school exams in 2004. Now, they are aligned with national curriculum and have expanded into 22 subjects with 300,000 students using their software.

But, they were no overnight success story. It took them years to find success in the supersaturated education market, full of big players like Khan Academy, Mathletics and Duolingo.

So how did Education Perfect grow their crystal?

1. The right reactants

Without the right ingredients in the perfect quantities, you’re never going to get crystals growing (close enough is not good enough here). Education Perfect has spent many hours developing and optimising.  They now have an easy-to-use product, that gamifies learning, secretly sneaks in repetition so you actually learn something, and cuts back on teacher’s workloads by making homework setting and marking almost automatic.

Education Perfect use a subscription-based business model, charging schools $40 per subject or $100 for all subjects per student per year.  This model is handy for predicting revenue and managing cash flow, but means repeat business is vital.  Education Perfect have top-notch customer service, treating customers as honoured guests at an exclusive restaurant. They keep schools coming back by offering customisation, training and close relationships.

Unfortunately, the right ingredients alone aren’t enough. Early on, the crystals didn’t grow and Education Perfect had no customers.


2. Scratching

Theoretically scratching involves scratching a glass rod against the bottom of the beaker, creating a surface for crystals to grow on, and throwing off the equilibrium of the liquid.  What it often actually means for the over-zealous among us is:

over zealous scratching

Education Perfect didn’t physically scratch anyone (obviously), but they persevered with a few clever ideas, to throw off the equilibrium of the sector.  In the early days, their sales pitches were rejected again and again, even being called a ‘load of rubbish’, yet they persevered.  They found business channels which worked for them, directly contacting schools, and working hard to build relationships and deals.  In a true mark of perseverance, they redefined the meaning of “no”, realising it often wasn’t a straight out no, but rather a “not at the moment”, or “we don’t have the budget.”

Their innovative Language Perfect World Championship has also disrupted the sector, letting competitive spirit drive learning globally (it certainly worked on me #2011BronzeAwardWinner).  Free annual publicity and a chance to get people hooked on their product has been a stroke of genius.


3. Seed Crystals

These are the magic.  If you chuck one tiny crystal into the liquid, all of a sudden you will have heaps more crystals just like it. Obviously getting that first seed crystal, just like a first customer, can be a little tricky, as they’re not easy to come by.  However, once Education Perfect started to get paying customers, they started to gain the credibility and momentum.  They now had a revenue stream (or rather a trickle initially) and could further expand their reach.  But had they made it yet?


4. Reaching the critical radius

When crystals are trying to form, there are two conflicting forces at play.  When the clusters are small, they are dominated by the dissolving force. Yet when they reach the critical radius, all of a sudden the attractive force starts to dominate, and all the little crystals start clumping together. Next thing you know, your crystal is growing exponentially.

Forces pulling crystal apart (1)

It’s the same in the start-up world.  In the early days, everything is against you, but then you reach a certain point, and boom, you start to grow!  With no sales in the first year, $20,000 of profit in their second year, and doubling in size every year since, Education Perfect is the epitome of this critical size phenomenon. This was the exponential crystal growth they had been after all along.  Luckily for Education Perfect, being software based made them highly scalable, and absolutely ready for this size explosion.


Unfortunately, just because you’ve finally got your crystal, does not mean you will have a crystal forever.  Have you ever taken a snow flake and crushed it between your fingers? Crystals are delicate. With an ever-changing tech industry and fierce competitors ready to crush them, ultimately Education Perfect needs to keep growing. The bigger the crystal, the harder it is to destroy.

Climate models: Understanding the uncertainty

For years climate change and global warming have been inescapable buzz words.  The constant doom and gloom can be overwhelming, and it is no surprise people feel a little hopeless.

Climate change doom and gloom

But, climate models can give us insight into climate change and help us prepare for the future, as explored in this video:

Climate models seem like a dull, technical topic, yet they are so, so important for so many areas, from food production, to public health, to the existence of different species.

Yet, when decisions are made today, for twenty years into the future, are climate models EVER consulted?  Although climate models can’t tell us with certainty what will happen, they give us a range of possibilities, many of which have serious implications.  Yet, as a whole the information gets ignored.  The longer action is left, the more expensive and difficult it gets.  So it needs to start NOW.  We need to start NOW.

The thing is so few people “get” climate models, or really even think about them at all.  We need to change that.


  • Start reading
  • Be interested
  • Get the conversation started

Let’s make it the norm to talk about climate models. Here’s a few easy ways you can do that:

When watching the weather forecast: Explain to grandma how weather models work, and how climate models are based on the same principle.

When you’re planning your weekend ski trip: Discuss with your mate how a predicted a 3 oC temperature increase could mean that the number of snow days on Mt Buller halve (Bhend, Bathols & Hennessy, 2012).

When your mum says, “It’s freezing today, I don’t believe this global warming nonsense!” Explain the uncertainty behind climate models, and how they represent the overall climate, not just an individual day.

Basically, get educated and get talking.


Bhend, J, Bathols, J & Hennessy K 2012, Climate change impacts on snow in Victoria, report, Bureau of Meteorology, viewed 28 August 2015,

Frame Pool 2008, Stock Video # 396-375-211, An animal cemetery of walrus bones, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,…/396375211-animal-cemetery-ma…
The Telegraph 2015, Flood Philippines 2647456k, A flooded city street in the Philippines, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,…/…/flood-philippines-_2647456k.jpg
Tornado Facts 2002, Lightning and tornado storm, A lightning strike next to a tornado, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,…/07/lighting-and-tornado-storm.jpg
Westmount Wire 2015, Melting ice polar bear on, A polar bear standing on a piece of floating ice, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,…/global-warming-i…/
Blake, M 2014, Namib desert, The dry landscape of the Namib desert in Africa, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,…/nami…/small/namib-desert.jpg
Bush Fire Front 2015, Vic23, Fire engulfing a farm in Victoria Australia, online image, viewed 28 August 2015,
NASA 2001, Blue marble, A composite image of the earth as seen from space, online image, viewed August 28 2015,
Prydain Wiki 2014, Llawgadarn mountains, A scenic image of a lake surrounded by mountains, online image, viewed August 28 2015,

Meaning of Success: Donna Rose Addis

Last week I had the opportunity to talk with Donna Rose Addis, an Associate Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Auckland.  Coming from the low decile Aorere College, and with no family members with tertiary education, going to university was not the “done” thing.  Yet Addis now leads her own team at the University of Auckland Memory Lab, has done research at the University of Toronto and Harvard and won countless awards.

So from someone who has undoubtedly achieved success, what does success actually mean?

Addis explained that “success can be defined in many different ways… it’s what you make it to be.”  For her, it has been reaching the top of the world in her field, but it could simply be moving up the ranks at the local supermarket to manager.  However, this does not mean it will simply fall into your lap.  So what has contributed to Addis’ success?

De Bono (1985) commented that passion combined with good timing, is one source of success, and it is true, Addis is passionate about her research, and self-professes has had some good luck; however, I believe that ultimately, goals, resilience and hard work have been key to her accomplishments.

success smart art

Amazingly, the idea of goal setting, can actually be viewed through the lens of Addis’ research.  She focuses on memory, and has found that an individual’s ability to imagine their future, is based on memories of past experiences and exposures.  We are all “limited by experience, and expanded by our views.”  For Addis, leaving high school, she did not have a clear idea of where her life would take her, she thought maybe a history teacher.  Yet, as she became passionate about psychology, and inspired by her research supervisor, Lynette Tippett, she started to imagine a future she had never previously considered.

An example of this view expansion is when Addis was given a “vote of confidence” after finishing high school with a scholarship for being the highest achieving Pacific Island student. So she set the ambitious goal of finishing her degree without a student loan. This may seem like a fairly daunting task for many; however, Robson (2010) comments that people are hard wired to reach for goals and success far beyond the commonly perceived limits of possibility. Covey (2002) explains that having goals and direction is what is necessary to be highly effective, and Addis allowed her expanded horizon to build these ambitions.

Imagining future comic

Consequently, Addis, who “loves a challenge” got stuck in to applying for every scholarship she could find. This led to failure and rejection. Lots of it.  “For every 20 or 30 [scholarships] I applied for, I would get a small one.”  Despite the constant let-downs, Addis remained resilient, and did eventually graduate without a student loan.  Looking back she is not entirely sure how she dealt with it, but believes it was due to “locus of control,” meaning her perceived level of control over the rejections, and ability to separate herself as a person from outside factors. Robson (2010) supports this, explaining you have to evaluate much you actually contributed to the failure.  If it is out of your control, you simply must let go and move on.  Robson (2010) comments that resilience and deciding to create our own reality, are the seeds of success and this certainly applies to Addis.

Failure locus of control comic

Alongside goals and resilience, Addis says she always wants to “push myself and extend myself as much as I can.” This has meant a lot of hard work to get her where she is today.  Just as Gladwell (2008) explains 10,000 hours of effort are required to master a pursuit, Addis comments her success is, “all about hard work in the end.”  In particular, what we can learn from Addis is that hard work does not simply precipitate out of thin air, Addis is driven by her passion. We too should be driven by passion in the things with which we wish to succeed, as hardwork, although still hard, comes more easily.

Hardwork comic

Despite her considerable research success, Addis says the “best part” is returning to her roots.  She inspires students from low socioeconomic backgrounds in South Auckland, through talks on aspiring to personal success and getting excited about science.  Given her history there is no better person to connect with the students and show the heights that really can be achieved with goals, resilience and hard work. Although she commented that being “seen as super successful” can sometimes make her appear unattainable, talking with her I found her down to earth and incredibly genuine, so I can see why she succeeds in this pursuit also.  Ultimately, her research and work in the community really resonates with what Robson (2010) says, that doing something which has value for you, and with the motivation to help others, is to be successful.  This is Addis in a nutshell.

Find out more about Addis

Memory Lab

Brain Breaking Blog interview


Addis, D 2012, Inspiring islanders – Samoan scientist Donna-Rose Addis, online video, viewed 15 May 2015,

Covey, R 2002, The 7 habits of highly effective people, Franklin Covey, Salt Lake City.

De Bono, E 1985, Tactics: the art and science of success, William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd, Great Britain.

Gladwell, M 2008, Outliers: the story of success, Penguin Group, Australia.

Robson, T 2010, Failure is an option: how setbacks breed success, HarperCollinsPublishers, Sydney

Girls in Physics: The Difficulty Default

As a teenager studying physics and chemistry at school, and then going on into engineering, before now studying science, I have had the following conversation a number of times with girls a few years younger than me. Conversation on science with younger girls That I have this conversation with anyone is not ideal, but the thing is, I have only ever had it with females. Ever.

This worrying attitude to science is not just a one off situation either, it is a widespread societal issue. There is a general consensus that more girls are needed in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), even simply at a high school level. It is not an access issue, as most girls in the developed world do have the same opportunity to study science.  But they are choosing not to.  For some reason girls are being dissuaded from science, and in particular physics, but why?

Just like a Rubik’s cube, an adaptive leadership challenge is a complex situation, requiring many twists and turns to solve all sides. Girls not studying science, and in particular physics is a perfect example of an adaptive challenge.  Despite the many interlinked elements, I am going to focus on the default perception of difficulty.

Physics has a terrible reputation amongst girls.  Girls believe they cannot do it.  They often believe it is a boy’s subject.  This is a groundless belief, as there is no actual difference in cognitive ability between boys and girls as shown in the following infographic. Infographic on women in science So why is it seen as “sooo hard”?  Why is physics dropped without a good attempt?

Girls are not born saying, “physics is too challenging a pursuit for the feeble female mind.” Yet somewhere along the way society cultivates this mindset.  Pollack (2013) hypothesises that, “boys are encouraged to tough out difficult courses in unpopular subjects, while girls, no matter how smart, receive fewer arguments from their parents, teachers or guidance counsellors if they drop a physics class or shrug off an AP exam.” This attitude is coming from the very same society saying more girls need to study science and it suggests a systemic issue rather than one with just the girls themselves…

Dealing with adaptive leadership challenges can be explained in terms of “collective and individual disequilibrium” (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky 2009), which is analogous to the challenging process of learning. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explains that with disequilibrium comes pain from deep change, and it can cause conflict, panic and fear of losing something dear. These are difficult emotions to manage without the support of people around you.

The thing is, most people find physics challenging, but the surrounding support ensures that males remain within the “productive zone of disequilibrium” and go on to learn and understand the material. Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) explain this is the range of pressure in which things get done and changes get made.

The lack of support for girls, and the personal risk confronted when learning in a discipline where they need to overcome gender bias, means the disequilibrium experienced often moves beyond the limit of tolerance so the girls drop out.  They experience the “individual disequilibrium” as they engage with science.  Girls are not simply battling thermodynamics and wave particle theorems, but also pushing against traditional gender roles.  With so much obstruction to success, is it any wonder girls tend to opt for something else?  Difficulty in English for example, could be put down to lack or study, or lower individual ability. Whereas in physics, a girl may be accused of straying from her own domain.

Adaptive leadership is needed to deal with this.  Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky (2009) comment when disequilibrium is experienced as a result of dealing with an adaptive leadership challenge, those people exercising leadership must have compassion for the trials faced. We need to help girls navigate the difficulties they experience in studying physics.  Society currently dampens disequilibrium for males in science, by conveying a sense of capability, yet does the opposite for females, heightening fears and insecurities.

So why have we not already dealt to this difficulty default?  The status quo in science and physics has arisen from a wider inequality in genders. The inequality is self-propagating, as the “collective disequilibrium” that would arise from change is significant.

We need to turn this situation around and put society into a productive zone of disequilibrium by questioning the basis behind these gender stereotypes.  Then we might be able to help girls through the individual disequilibrium they struggle against in their studies of physics in science.  Let’s change girls’ default perception from to “difficult” to “doable”.


Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The practice of adaptive leadership. Harvard Business Press, Boston, Massachusetts.

Pollack, E 2013, ‘Why there are still so few women in science?’, The New York Times, 3 October, viewed 4 May 2015, VCAA

2014, ‘VCE Graded Assessment 2013’, Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority, viewed 4 May 2015,